Dreams Do Come True: A Glance at First-Time NFR Qualifiers
Making the National Finals Rodeo is a universal dream for all rodeo competitors. Four professional athletes from the Tri-State Livestock News region have achieved this goal for the very first time, and each has a unique story about how they got there.
In truth, Sparing has already backed in the boxes at the Thomas and Mack in Las Vegas, although his name was never on the screen. The newlywed from Helena, Montana has been an NFR hazer five times: three times for his mentor, KC Jones, and two for Tyler Waguespack, Ty Erickson, and Clayton Haas. Waguespack won the world in 2016. Sparing has had several “assists,” but this year, he gets to nod his head himself.
Growing up in town, Sparing never rodeoed until Ty Erickson, also of Helena, introduced him to steer wrestling at 18 years old. Sparing rodeoed for Montana State University for one year, then transferred to Tarleton State University, where he met and began traveling with KC Jones. Not many young men haze at the NFR, says Sparing, but Jones saw the potential in the young athlete.
After 2017, Sparing battled injuries for three years and mostly entered circuit rodeos around home. “I didn’t know if I would ever try to go do it again,” he said. The winter rodeos of early 2022 launched him into early contention in the standings. He won the Montana Circuit Finals, placed third at RodeoHouston, and fourth at Rodeo Austin, and knew that he ought to make good on his year by hitting the road.
“Something about this year just kind of felt like things were going to fall into place,” he said. Indeed they did, inside and outside of the arena. Not only did Sparing qualify to his first NFR in fourteenth place, he married the love of his life, Danielle on Oct. 22nd, and he and his longtime friend Ty Erickson are building a new house for Sparing in his hometown of Helena.
He’ll be hazing again at this year’s Finals for his traveling partner Dirk Tavener, whose horse Oscar helped him win the majority of his money throughout the year. When not rodeoing, Sparing works for a construction company. His coworkers are fascinated by his rodeo career, which helps keep his priorities in check. “It can be very stressful if you’re not winning. You have to keep a good attitude, because we’re living the life that a lot of people are jealous of,” he says. “You have to remember that you’re living the life, win, lose, or draw.”
Engesser’s qualification to the NFR is a story of sheer determination, having the National Finals Breakaway Roping just out of reach for the past two years. In 2020, she finished in the crying hole at 16th, and last year in the top 30. In 2022, she will rope at the South Point Arena & Equestrian Center as the #9 cowgirl in the world.
Engesser has the unique experience of rodeoing professionally with her sister, Taylor. “It’s a blessing to get to go together. She’s my biggest supporter,” she says. The sisters enter strategically to maximize their efforts and minimize their time on the road. “I don’t want to go to 100 rodeos. I don’t even want to go to 80 rodeos, if I don’t have to,” she says. Capitalizing on the larger rodeos and hitting up smaller rodeos on the way was the road to success. She achieved her NFR qualification in just 53.
The sisters from Spearfish, South Dakota are of small stature, which gives the taller competitors an advantage over them, in theory. However, besides doing strength training for their arms, legs, and core muscles, they also capitalize on their horsepower. “We have to stay on the barrier because we don’t have as much power as some other girls that can throw it further than us. If we really can eye the line and not have to reach as far, then that gives us the opportunity to stay in the hunt […] You can’t back off,” she says.
Most notable about Engesser’s success is the horse on which she won the majority of her money. Rolo is a 20 year old bay gelding, he has one eye, and Engesser bought him for a deal as a practice horse when she was going to college at Tarleton University. When her good horse got hurt, he became her main mount. “He’s put on a lot of miles and gone to a lot of different states. It was so easy to compete on a horse that gave me 100% every single time,” she said.
Like Sparing, Engesser’s 2022 season was fulfilling in more than one way. She became engaged to Rhett Fanning, and the couple will be married next June. She thanks all of her sponsors for their support, and her family for backing her. When she was feeling discouraged this summer, her family told her to keep going, saying, “It only takes one to get out of a slump.”
The National Finals Breakaway Roping will be Nov. 29-30th, consisting of five rounds each day. Whereas all of the other events at the NFR have 10 days to compete, it will be a very different mental game for the breakaway ropers. Thus, Fulton is focusing on mental toughness in the final month leading up to her first NFR. She will also configure the arena at her parents’ place in Wickenburg, Arizona to the dimensions of the South Point.
The Miller, South Dakota cowgirl is well known for her horsemanship and horses, but she learned a tough lesson in the past year. “I had a horse that didn’t quite fit my style but I’ve been trying to get with the last few years, but I finally decided to sell him because it wasn’t working. Out there you have to be on your game every time because everybody else is. It’s super important to have a horse out there that does everything: scores, runs, breaks the rope away,” she says. The majority of money this year was won by a horse owned by her mother, who had not been seasoned before her late summer rodeos on the west coast. Her longtime horse “Sambo,” the black gelding that she has ridden for eight years, was used for the longer scores, like Salinas. “You have to have a pretty versatile horse or different horses for all the different setups,” she says.
Consistency was Fulton’s strength throughout the year. “It was steady throughout the year. I felt like I roped good and did well at the smaller rodeos and capitalized at the bigger rodeos that pay a little better,” she says.
Her advice for anyone aspiring to make the NFR is to “find someone better than you” in your area and rope with them. Soak up knowledge and keep friendships. “Those relationships are what lead to other aspects of your success,” she says, whether it is finding the perfect horse to buy, learning how to enter using ProCom, or knowing who to call on the road when the pickup breaks down. The connections made throughout a professional career are vital.
Having a support system is “literally everything,” according to Fulton. “I couldn’t have done any of the things I did this year without my family. You can’t do it all: you have to have people in your corner,” she says.
When it comes to preparation for the National Finals Rodeo, bronc rider Tanner Butner’s routine is casual, which isn’t to say “lax.” Rather, Butner is doing what he has always done. Employed at the Dragging Y Ranch in Dillon, Montana, the slow-talking cowboy has been busy as ever, weaning and shipping calves and preg checking cows. “At least I ain’t gonna get fat doing this,” he says.
As for crawling on practice horses, he will likely go to Miles City to practice with the college athletes, along with Sankeys whenever they buck out horses. In the meantime, he’s competed in a few winter rodeos around home with no luck, but he is unperturbed. In fact, the news has barely sunk in that he has qualified for his first NFR. “It’s pretty wild. I’m still not even sure if I know what’s happening yet. I really don’t think it’s going to set in until I show up and have to go ahead and get on one,” he says.
The Daniel, Wyoming native grew up in a family of bronc riders: both grandfathers, uncle, dad, cousin, and brother all dabbled in the event at one point or another. After competing for Central Wyoming College in Riverton and University of Montana Western in Dillon, he decided to make a go of it professionally. He placed within the top 30 in the standings for the past two years, giving him those vital qualifications to larger rodeos. This summer, he was hanging tough in 20th place when he won California Rodeo Salinas, which gave him the boost he needed to be “on the bubble” vying for the finish line inside the top 15.
Though his family members were filled with anxiety, and there were several mixups in tallying the final numbers, Butner was unbothered by the details. He just knew he needed to keep spurring horses. “I didn’t change anything. I tried to get dumber as it went on, really. I didn’t want to think about anything too much,” he says. “I told Chase [Brooks] to enter me wherever the heck you think we need to go and I’ll make sure I get there.” He won $25,000 in the final month–a quarter of his winnings.
Butner and Brooks also travel with Kolby Wanchuk and Sage Newman, the man who broke the record of Saddle Bronc regular season earnings this year. All four traveling partners qualified.Of the four, Butner is the last traveling partner to secure his first trip to the NFR. To top it all off, Butner also became engaged to Sydney Nash on Nov. 2, a little over a month before they leave for the bright lights of Vegas.